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Hemingway on War
By Ernest Hemingway
ScribnerCopyright © 2003 Sean Hemingway
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ForewordI am sure Ernest Hemingway would be pleased with the selection his grandson Seán has made from his grandfather's writing on war. Any selection implies just that: some things have been left out, but more than enough has been left in to give the twenty-first-century reader the true gen on war as it was waged in the last hundred years.
Hemingway was born in 1899 and had he lived as long as it is possible for a man to live, he could have borne witness to the whole of the deadliest and most war-torn century of which we have a historical record. Sadly, his health began to fail at mid-century and drastically worsened when he was forced to choose by the Cold War between his beloved Finca Vigía and his country. He died just short of completing the second third of the twentieth century.
How much did his going to the wars affect his health and shorten his life? In my opinion, a great deal. As a fortunate American, he chose to go to war rather than, as an unlucky Spaniard or an even unluckier Pole, have it inevitably come to him.
James Joyce, perhaps the greatest writer of the twentieth century, neither went to war nor wrote about it in any way but he did not have Hemingway's initially robust constitution and would not have lasted very long in war. Writers who write of war from personal experience have to have special qualities, and I am not sure any of them succeed without strong drink. I like to think that Karl von Clausewitz would never have made it through the Jena campaign without potato schnapps and we know Ulysses S. Grant needed both cigars and corn whiskey to get him through the Wilderness.
About the earlier wars: the Italian front in 1918 and the Greco-Turkish War in the 1920s I know only from what my father wrote in such stories as "A Way You'll Never Be," but I do remember when I was ten years old in 1938 and in the fifth grade being beside my father at the top of the stairs on the second floor of our home in Key West when he opened and read a telegram informing him of the start of the last big offensive of the Spanish Republic which would end sixteen weeks later in disaster on the Ebro. Papa left us for Spain at once. That was the year my mother, my younger brother, and I went to war, three whole years before Pearl Harbor. My family was, as they say, prematurely antifascist.
Martha Gellhorn, who was a protégée of Mrs. Roosevelt, arranged an invitation for Hemingway to the White House when it was by then very clear that Spain was about to fall to Franco and his German and Italian allies. I remember my father's conversation after that visit, all of us enjoying an excellent meal at the long eighteenth-century Spanish table downstairs in our Key West house in the dining room with the big painting by Joan Miró of his farm outside Barcelona. Papa was telling us that he had come away from his White House evening with a confirmation of his previous dislike of the President. Things had gotten off to a bad start, from my father's point of view, when the President somewhat gratuitously remarked that he had not read any work of fiction since he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Hemingway must have then recalled to mind what he had written not long before in Green Hills of Africa, that all countries eventually eroded and that the only things that lasted were the people who had practiced the arts. The rest of the evening the President spent telling about, not listening to, what was going on in Spain. Furthermore, said my father, Mrs. Roosevelt, although undoubtedly a person with deep sympathies for humanity in general, was a poor housekeeper and he had never had to eat a worse meal than what was served him at the White House, especially the squab, which was tougher than rubber.
Only a year or so later, when the great popular success of For Whom the Bell Tolls seemed to confirm the wisdom of his having ended his second marriage, Hemingway left Key West and started a new expatriate life in Cuba with Martha Gellhorn, and they both went as journalists to China and the British and Dutch colonies in the Far East. Marty, long after her marriage to my father had ended, wrote a wonderful memoir of their tour together and Papa at the time produced some of his most prescient military journalism, still very happy to work and live together with Marty as he had done during the Spanish Civil War.
Ernest Hemingway loved the sea. He had seafaring ancestors from the age of sail and he and his kid brother, Leicester, once they left Oak Park, the landlocked Chicago suburb where they were born, always made their home within sight of salt water and owned boats, Leicester sail and Ernest power. So when Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, Papa was uniquely situated to make a highly unconventional contribution to the war effort. From his experience in the Spanish Civil War, he had a wealth of information on the people who now made up the fascist government in that country as well as how they might behave in any Axis intelligence operation against the United States through Latin America, especially Cuba. Despite the snub he had received from President Roosevelt two years before, he contacted Naval Intelligence through the American embassy in Havana, and it accepted his help with intelligence work that led to the arrest of German agents as they tried to disembark in Cuba from Spanish vessels the Falangist political clubs in Spain had helped them travel through Spain to board, vessels which as neutrals could make port in Havana and other destinations in Latin America. Soon afterwards it gave him paramilitary status as captain of his sportfishing boat, Pilar, to play a small part in the large operation to contain and turn back Operation Paukenschlag, the all-out U-boat assault on American coastal shipping lanes in the first six months after America's entry into the war.
By the middle of July 1942, the submarine war had mostly shifted to the North Atlantic and Papa felt it was safe enough to bring his two younger sons, Gregory and myself, to spend the rest of our summer vacation with him at Cayo Confites, the tiny offshore island then used by the Cuban military to keep watch on the narrow deepwater channel that separates the northeastern end of Cuba from the southern end of the Bahama Bank. Cayo Confites itself was exactly like that island cartoonists draw with the shipwrecked sailor, but it lacked even a single palm tree, with only the poor unpainted shack that housed the two soldiers who manned a two-way shortwave radio.
Greg and I slept in the two forward bunks on the Pilar, which always came in to anchor by the island in the evening after the daytime patrols. During the patrols we were left ashore with our own small skiff, and one day we almost drowned when a summer afternoon line squall caught us goggle fishing a little ways south of the island, swamping our skiff and washing us up on what was, luckily for us, a sandy shore. Goggle fishing was what we called it back then, for the U-boat people had not yet even invented the snorkel, and I think Greg and I were the very first people in the Americas to hunt an underwater coral reef using swimming goggles that had been welded together to give a single plane of vision for both eyes.
Marty and Papa's marriage began to fall apart that summer, and on through what passes for fall and winter in the northern tropics, with a great many home truths harshly expressed by both parties. Marty was probably right. With the buildup of shipments of men and materiel from America to Britain in order to launch the second front the Russians so desperately wanted, the U-boat battles now mostly being fought in the approaches to the British Isles, it was time for two veteran war correspondents to gear up and go to cover together the impending invasion of Western Europe. The trouble was Papa was a little more veteran and a lot more writer than Marty, for he was now an old forty-three years, wise to the ways of both art and warfare and with a bad case of piles, a very unpleasant handicap indeed under combat conditions. He was also well aware that Jim Joyce, who had never heard a shot fired in anger, was sitting out the war in Switzerland and was likely to be hailed as the greatest writer of the twentieth century. Later he would joke about such thoughts to his friends in the 4th American Infantry Division, calling himself Ernie Hemorrhoids, the Poor Man's Pyle, but Marty had to use pretty strong words to get him to take up again the war writing burden and he never forgave her.
World War II was the last war that Ernest Hemingway covered. When asked by his two youngest boys what he had done in that war, he told us he paid for it. This was a sardonic reference to the confiscatory income tax he paid on the sale of For Whom the Bell Tolls to the movies. Just as he had been unfortunate in his prescient but premature antifascism, selling the movie rights to his best-selling novel just at the moment the income tax rates rose to over 80 percent for high income brackets in order to instill a real feeling of sacrifice in the home front people and corporations that stood to profit at last, after twelve dry years, from a war economy, left him dangerously exposed financially. He had turned over the domestic income from his first big success, The Sun Also Rises, to his first wife, Hadley, at the time of their divorce. He was paying a high alimony rate for the support of his second wife, Pauline, and their two young children, and his foreign rights income had been cut off by the war. Most of his profits from A Farewell to Arms had gone to setting up trust funds after his father's suicide for the support of his mother, unmarried sisters, and kid brother, generously added to by G. A. Pfeiffer, Pauline's very rich uncle. His finances had reached their lowest point after the poor sales of Across the River and Into the Trees, when my wife, Henrietta, suggested he and his fourth wife, Mary, could make big money reporting on Mr. Truman's war in Korea. To his credit, he did not throw us out of the Finca Vigía, where we were visiting at the time. It was during these same years that poor Robert Capa, whose only profitable trade was photographing war, finally bought the farm in Indo-China.
Papa made a remarkable comeback from his arduous journalistic coverage of the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Paris, and the combat horrors of the Schnee Eifel with The Old Man and the Sea, to this day his best-selling book. He was always healthiest and happiest at sea. It pleases me to leave him standing with his last wife, Mary, the only one of his wives who really loved the sea, on the flying bridge of the Pilar, out in the Stream off the Moro wearing only a sun hat, white pressed shirt, and black tailored Bermuda shorts that show off his elegant eighteenth-century calves, a cool drink in his left hand, his right hand on the wheel, his head turned back toward the stern, watching the two outrigger baits bounce in the blue water on each side of the boat's twin curling white wake for the first sight of a marlin's wagging bill, dark gray dorsal fin, or scythe-shaped tail, jumping down to the stern deck to snatch the rod from its holder, slacking the reel drag to feed line, then tightening down the drag and hauling the rod back hard four or five times to set the hook that sends the reel screaming and the huge fish high into the air for its first jump.
Patrick Hemingway Bozeman, Montana April 2003
Excerpted from Hemingway on War by Ernest Hemingway Copyright © 2003 by Sean Hemingway. Excerpted by permission.
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